Richard Stallman @ Trinity College Dublin

Richard Stallman speaking

I saw Richard Stallman speak in Trinity College Dublin tonight. I’ve always been interested in Stallman’s ideas on software and copyright, and I admire his stance and activism. The topic for the night was “A Free Digital Society” and was billed as being “non-technical” and the public were “encouraged to attend”. I don’t know “non-technical” it was – a fellow attendee said she thought most of it was “acronyms above my head”, but for the most part it was a well delivered talk on the various threats to our liberty posed by using digital communication technology – ranging from state surveillance to anti-sharing. The bit on Free software, which is Stallman’s primary interest, was where it veered most towards the technical, but he had interesting insights on how our digital systems are hindering our rights. He is a passionate man who’s sole motivation seems to be to inform people as to how trapped they are by their digital products, and how we can change this.

One of the most interesting parts were his thoughts on how to reward artists. He is against the demonisation of ‘pirates’, and doesn’t believe in Digital Rights Management, but does believe artists should be rewarded for their efforts. One suggestion is the use of public funds to pay them, which is a bit far-fetched, but he also hit the nail on the head when describing how a lot of people want to and will contribute to the arts but find it either too dear or too hard to do. He suggests a quick, easy anonymous way to transfer money to your favourite artists when ever you please. Seemed reasonable.

Some other points:

  1. There were 4 women to about 40 men
  2. Stallman exclusively used the female pronoun when describing programmers and artists.
  3. He is very careful about language, he used words quite specifically, and you can tell he thinks a lot about the words he uses.
  4. Some of his phrases were quite playfully mischievous, like “Facebook used” (instead of ‘user’), “Amazon Swindle” (Kindle) and he referred to internet users as “Internauts”
  5. I found him quite amiable, but he seemed a bit prickly during the Q&A but I suspect this is a defence mechanism he has built up following hostility. To him this was a Q&A, not a debate. He invited some bullish, hostile questions (delivered as such) and he shut them down quite quickly and thus he came across as defensive and rude. Maybe its the nature of “computer science” folk but some of the questions were delivered in an overly hostile manner, in my opinion.
  6. After he specifically forbade us from putting his image on Facebook or Instagram, I asked him what he thought of Twitter. He seemed fine with it as it can be accessed via Free software and that it was a publishing platform so you were willingly publishing your thoughts on it.

All in all and interesting evening.

Things Fall Apart

Last night two black, plastic electronic devices I wear on my person broke, leaving both essentially unusable. They still both function correctly, but can no longer be worn – they became static objects where mobility is one of their main reasons for being. These days the fact that our expensive electronic gadgets are perishable is hardly worth mentioning. We all know that our phones will crack, our X-Boxes will die and the hands of our watches will one day stop turning. It is a testament to our consumerist age, our relative wealth, and our lack of ecological awareness that this is shrugged off. Google even made this fact, that our plastic gadgets are essentially ‘throw away when used’ as a marketing tool for their Chrome Operating System. This is not to mention the dual problem of obsoleteness – the shoe box full of Minidiscs, Mini-DV camcorders, and myriad gaming consoles, stacked on top of the shelves full of VHS tapes never to be watched again as technology marches on.

My broken watch and headphones

This all struck me as within hours of each other my watch strap snapped and my headphones cracked. Now, watches are usually a fixable thing, but this watch in particular is the iconic Casio F-91W (a watch so ubiquitously cheap that I remember as a kid they were sellotaped to the front of Fairy Liquid bottles as a free gift – hence one Monday every child showing up in the yard at lunch time with the same watch…). It costs roughly 15 quid in Argos and has a plastic strap. The only way to fix it would be to replace one side of the stap and it strikes me that this would not be worth the time or money as it is so cheap. And so it goes; this is my 3rd Casio F-91W in 3 or 4 years. Almost annually this very same thing happens and I’ve become accustomed to simply wandering into the Jervis Shopping Centre and picking up another one. This habit started a few years ago and quietly became a standard practice.

For years I wore an expensive-ish heavy Casio G-Shock watch that served me well, until one day the latch got too loose and it was prone to fall off. I put it on my bedside locker and resolved to fix it. A few days passed and my long-held inability to feel right without a watch (despite the mini super computer sitting in my pocket which can tell me the time and a whole lot more) got to me and so I temporarily filled the void by buying a cheap replacement that had the added bonus of nostalgia and retro-hipster-chic. As a man who has always tried to put function-over-form I was set, and the old chrome G-Shock eventually gathered a layer of dust, until it was shuffled off to the dreaded shoe-box under the bed; the final resting place.

Then one day the F-91W went the way of the dodo – but this time there was no chance of recovery, so I simply replaced it. And thus I became a man who wore disposable watches. But it wasn’t the only such thing in my life. I had also become accustomed to going through headphones at an alarming rate – either through their natural disintegration (that moment when one speaker begins to cut out and you are on a long bus journey..noooooo) or through loss (I believe many a pub seat has ear-buds stuffed down between the cushions.) So I did the same thing as my watch – I would march into Tower records and pick up the very same pair again and again (I should note I do the same with runners and trousers – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

Last night, however, I was struck to think about this. Earlier this year I decided to test out some of the uber-hip “over the head big can-style” headphones that are all the rage. Tower have a helpful stand where you can plug in your own device to hear the difference. Once I heard Public Enemy’s paraolympic-anthem “Harder Than You Think” booming through a pair; the tinny, pathetic 15 quid ear-buds just didn’t cut it anymore. I decided to invest in a moderately priced, lower-end-but-still-relatively-expensive pair. After a brief moment of self-awareness where I wondered if I looked like a twat, I decided that sound quality trumped personal appearance.

I also thought that this was the end of my rampant headphone replacement schedule. How wrong I was when I took them off last night to feel them disintegrate in my hands, as my watch began to hang off my wrist. I realised how relaxed I had become with just consuming these plastic gizmos so rapidly and I felt a pang of guilt. Not only is this a waste of money, but I also felt like I was directly adding little blogs to the monstrous island of plastic living below the Pacific Ocean. The relative expense of the headphones annoyed me much more then my previous litany of watches and cheap ear-buds so I paused to reflect.

In thinking about my attitudes to property and waste etc. I realised that one of my main problems is the relative lack of respect I show these things. My things. I take off my headphones and just cram them into my pockets. My laptop gets tossed about freely and would make many Apple fanboys scream with its bumps and bruises, and my phone is not even one years old and sports the kind of crack that would send some people mad. I am relatively O.K. with this; I can’t stand phone covers or screen protectors – a device is designed to be used as is, I don’t want to wrap it up in a space suit to protect it from it’s user, but at the same time am I dooming myself to wasting money and resources constantly replacing them as I hurl them about. I am not anal about the aesthetics of these devices – in fact I feel like all tools they should bare the marks of usage, but is this at the expense of their lifespan?

This lack of respect I show I think stems from a culture of consumption and disposability. We are constantly made to want the latest thing. A phone is obsolete by the time you have got it home from the shop. Add this to the fact that such devices are simply not designed to last, and whilst trying to avoid the tin foil hat, are probably designed NOT to last, if you get me. The recent PhoneBloks idea (which I love but have to agree with others and say is almost certainly unrealistic) plays on these ideas. Electronic devices have become increasingly unfixable; especially things like computers, where the ability to customise and replace parts becomes harder and harder (Apple, of course, are the chief culprits here) and as we make things more and more out of moulded plastic they become inherently harder to fix. Of course, we have great things like sugru and 3D printing is promised to bring power back to the masses (let’s not talk about it’s effect on the giant plastic island, though) but these are minority interests. Most of us are not going to fashion a home made replacement for the tiny piece of plastic that just flew off our headphones. We are going to bin them and buy new ones. Like good consumers.

All of this is also a good reminder of impermanence. Things fall apart, nothing lasts forever, you cannot fight it. But this is not an excuse to then accept that and that we should devour more and more plastic goodies. Impermanence should make us consider how we consume and our attachment to these trinkets. I have no attachment to them as individual things because I do not mourn their passing but rather see them as imminently replaceable, but I am attached to them as ideas, as things I should own, and so I race to replace them.

These broken, sad bits of plastic sitting next to me as I type have made me think about my relationship with objects. My laptop is whirring away, starting to get a bit slow, and so I have entertained myself by looking at the latest treats on Apple’s website. It’s not that old though, and maybe I could swap out the hard drive for an SSD?

And when I’m done with that, I’ll dust off the old G-Shock under the bed and bring it down to the jewellers to get it fixed.

Have I actually improved the silence?

As the world seems to be falling apart, and social media introduces a new level of cacophony of misinformation, speculation, and downright venomous bile — we should ask ourselves, is what I am about to say better than silence? Am I adding anything to what’s already being said? And possibly most importantly, is my desire to say it keeping me from listening to what is already being said. Because waiting for your turn to talk is not the same as listening.

Have I actually improved the silence?

In a month where between Thatcher and Boston we definitely saw some of the worst of ‘social media’*, Mike Monteiro hits the proverbial nail on the head when he asks us to question our contributions to the digital debate. Twitter just seems to be flowing with bile at the moment. Conversely, I took a dip into Facebook recently following months of having a deactivated account and it just seems so dull, full of banal marketing waffle. Either way, its not very nice to swim in.

Monteiro’s Quaker-inspired creed is a very good way to conduct your online business. As I’ve explored Buddhism more, I think more and more about the effects of my online actions. I’ve become a bit more reluctant to just pump the contents of my brain out there, especially if its for cheap laughs at someones expense or if its throwing a bomb into a heated debate. Mindfulness needs to extend to all our actions, including our tweeting. Indeed, Prickly Goo was born out of a growing dissatisfaction with the tone of my old blog, which had (for me) become simply a rant-fest. Your words have consequences out there in the real world. We really need to think about those, and indeed, our motivations and intentions. Why are we saying what we are saying? I think a lot of why we publish these days is less to do with contributing or debating but more to do with solidifying our own digital ego. As the Boston Bombing story was breaking, you got the impression people were simply tweeting just for the sake of contribution, to be seen to be part of the ‘breaking event’. As a friend pointed out, we get the lunacy of people tweeting that they are speechless. You are telling us you have nothing to say.

*On a side note, there’s been a lot of meta naval gazing about social media’s role in such events. Almost as much discussion to the event itself is now given to how we discussed the event! And in doing so, ‘social media’ has become this almost natural force. Or, to paraphrase the Mighty Mos Def “People talk about social media like it’s some giant livin in the hillside, Comin down to visit the townspeople”

Algorithms and the New Aesthetic

This is a very interesting take on the recent Amazon/’rape t-shirts’ story that exploded online recently. Via Amazon, a company called Solid Gold were selling t-shirts that included the phrase ‘Keep Calm And Rape Alot’. This, understandably, upset a lot of people and generated a lot of backlash against the sellers and Amazon. But Pete Ashton makes a very interesting and pertinent point – that most people did not grasp – that a human being wasn’t really involved in the process, hence the faux pas. The t-shirts were generated via an automatic algorithm, given certain inputs and parameters. This does not, as Ashton says, excuse them, but it does explain it. The ‘headfuck’ moment, as Ashton puts it, is that a human was not involved in the design or approval. A machine did it all.

Interestingly I came across the link on the New Aesthetic tumblr, which is collecting various disparate sources related to the emerging ‘New Aesthetic’ scene in London. For a good introduction, James Brindle’s (who coined the term) talk at Web Direction is a good starting point or the initial blog post which started it. Another thorough third-party investigation is Will Wiles piece for Aeon. Then follow it with Bruce Sterling’s measured response to the movement, which includes some criticisms to ponder. One of them is the actual lack of artificial intelligence in machines, and issues of ethics. As Sterling says:

“Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics.

In a way the t-shirt debacle underlines this – we are surrendering more and more of our lives to ‘algorithms’, thinking that machines can think for us. But they can’t – and eventually they will cross a line (ethical, legal, taste) that they cannot understand. This might only be the beginning.

All of this reminded me of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Today we are trusting the machines to print our t-shirts. If we cede more control, will the consequences more serious? 

Ominously, the New Aesthetic likes to talk about drones a lot….

You Are Listening To

This is my new favourite thing. Came across this the other day on Twitter or Tumblr. You Are Listening To Los Angeles mixes live police radio with ambient music, the result is a fascinating experience, sometimes sinister, sometimes something else completely. Good interview with the creator here.

I love ideas like this – such a simple concept, done so well, using various APIs to create something really unique.

Check it out, You Are Listening To

I sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit

i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called ‘the means of production.’ capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul. people who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.

Pandora’s Vox Redux (1994)

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10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

I do quite a bit of work with the programming language Processing, and am very much interested in the interaction of art and code, so I am excited by the new book Print 10, which is about a single line of Commodore64 code (10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10)

This book takes a single line of code—the extremely concise BASIC program for the Commodore 64 inscribed in the title—and uses it as a lens through which to consider the phenomenon of creative computing and the way computer programs exist in culture. The authors of this collaboratively written book treat code not as merely functional but as a text—in the case of 10 PRINT, a text that appeared in many different printed sources—that yields a story about its making, its purpose, its assumptions, and more. They consider randomness and regularity in computing and art, the maze in culture, the popular BASIC programming language, and the highly influential Commodore 64 computer.

The book positions itself within the realm of ‘software studies’, and opens with this beautiful description of computer code:

Computer programs process and display critical data, facilitate communication, monitor and report on sensor networks, and shoot down incoming missiles. But computer code is not merely functional. Code is a peculiar kind of text, written, maintained, and modified by programmers to make a machine operate. It is a text nonetheless, with many of the properties of more familiar documents. Code is not purely abstract and mathematical; it has significant social, political, and aesthetic dimensions. The way in which code connects to culture, affecting it and being influenced by it, can be traced by examining the specifics of programs by reading the code itself attentively.

Like a diary from the forgotten past, computer code is embedded with stories of a program’s making, its purpose, its assumptions, and more. Every symbol within a program can help to illuminate these stories and open historical and critical lines of inquiry.

Looking forward to reading it.

The Corporate Network

There is growing evidence and speculation that Twitter is about to fundamentally change the core experience for users – embedded images, video, blog posts becoming the norm (as opposed to the primarily text-only experience at the moment – with links to such things that you can expand on choice) – and (more significantly) to a filtered/trend based main feed (ala Facebook). They’ve also being consistently reigning in access to their API over the past year or so, further implying they want full control of the Twitter experience – so they can fundamentally alter it.

Last week I de-activated my Facebook account. The reasons for this were many (which I may come back to in another post) but one of the things which finally did it for me was this feeling that I was less and less in control of what I saw. It’s now widely known that a users main feed is algorithmically filtered by Facebook. This has always bugged me – I would be fine with it if I also had the option of a fire-hose unfiltered feed, but they don’t offer that. But what compounded it was their introduction of a system whereby pages/brands could pay more to have their posts reach a wider audience. From Facebook’s point of view this makes sense – so much content flows through it, and many people frequently log in but for short periods – they wanted a way to keep content out there for longer – and to make more money off of advertisers. As a user however this is a fundamental shift in the experience. When I logged in recently I felt less like I was engaging in a social network, rather than staring at a TV playing ads. (Users were also culpable for this with more and more ‘share this to win an iPad shenanigans and some kind of ‘offer claiming’ system)

It’s a cliché now – but yes – on Facebook you are not the customer you are the product. Someone has to pay to keep the servers running. But whereas Google (leaving aside any ‘selling on’ of information/tracking etc.) make this a relatively painless experience – they deliver ads on the periphery of the main experience – or clearly mark sponsored search results – I never felt (some what naively maybe) that the core experience of their products was being compromised. My emails still are mine, the search results are still there. But with Facebook the main objective – of socialising – is being manipulated for advertising revenue. Sure, Google are storing tonnes of data about me and using it to direct advertising at me – that’s another problem for another day – but from an experiential point of view they are doing it in an unobtrusive manner. Google+ does by default include trending topics in my feed, but it’s a relatively easy matter to remove them completely (if I wish)

Now it seems the same is about to happen with Twitter. Talk is of the ‘Discover’ tab – which shows you trending content etc – is to become the core primary feed for users. This is fine if I can still have my plain old unfiltered feed. But if that goes (and Dave Winer has also suggested – how do we know it hasn’t already?) then for me Twitter would, like Facebook, be completely compromised as a network.

In thinking about all this, I’ve started to formulate some basic principles for a social network I would like to see.

1. Access to an unfiltered feed. Fine, have your advertiser biased trend-based feed, but let me also just see MY feeds.

2. User-Filters. Let us control what we see, when.

3. Embedded media. I’m fine with images, previews of links being embedded. Google+ does this quite well (just a pity no one is on it) – Tumblr too. But let me collapse/expand them at will.

4. Equal playing field. Don’t give extra features (such as more words) to people who pay. That tips the network in favour of the big players and is the road to ruin.

5. Unobtrusive advertising. I accept someone has to pay to keep the lights on – but work out how to do it in a way that (a) doesn’t feel like I am staring at a rotating billboard or (b) doesn’t take over my feed in a manipulative way.

As soon as the ability to ‘pay’ to influence the core experience (as opposed to advertising in and around the core experience) is given I think a social network’s worth has to be questioned seriously by users.

The solution may well be to pony up and pay for such an experience, like app.net. But I fear app.net is an echo chamber of smug early adopters.

The Commentariat

The level of hostility, snideness and general nastiness that is seen in internet comment sections is nothing new, but its only really seemed to bother me lately. It has seemed increasingly like the overall majority of comments on general news and opinion sites are of the sneering variety. Posts about religion,for instance, are invariably treated to immediate reactionary shots deriding anyone who might follow one, or a story about the Occupy movement typically is subject to comments about smelly hippies “getting a job”. I’ve taken to not bothering to read comments sections any more – as there is rarely anything of worth in there. This is not to say that I want to see a chorus of people agreeing with the post (that wouldn’t be of much use) – comments sections offer a forum for constructive debate or further illumination on the points raise or counter-points – but I don’t need to see the ubiquitous quips and one-liners that have become the norm for such places. It has got me down to some degree. I look at these comments and I dispair – Is this what the public thinks? Is this the majority viewpoint?

However, today I read a piece by John Nicholson on Football365 that made me think. In discussing the trend for minority opinions to be read or treated as the thoughts of the masses he wrote:

Look at the Guardian’s website. Massively popular, with articles read by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people, yet look at the number of comments they attract. Regularly under a 100 made by a recurring cast of people. Even the global warming nutter vs nutter debates only attract 1500 or so. So almost no-one who reads the articles comments on them.

I realised this is true. Most web sites which would attract moderate or large readerships don’t really have huge amounts of comments relative to readership. The majority of people simply don’t comment. I thought about this a bit more; why is it that the comments sections seem to be overwhelmingly reactionary or abusive? Probably because the type of people who are reactionary or abusive simply have to have their say. The rest of us simply agree or disagree and don’t feel the need to wade in. The sneery, snide types must have their opinion heard. Others? Less so.

Of course, there is a lot to be said about how the medium itself makes it easier for people to broadcast more abusive messages – by placing the discourse behind digital screens it dehumanizes it, but this piece made me think about the numbers. That for every person who read an article only a minority chose to comment, and their motivation for commenting is possibly in alignment with their attitude.

That cheers me up. A bit.

“Gracefully exiting infinite loops”

Steve Jobs passed away last night. Don’t really need to add much to the stuff that has been, and will be written about him, suffice to say he made great things that I like to use.

Apple Computers famously reside at 1 Infinite Loop, in Cupertino, California. This morning whilst Twitter became a stream of tributes to Steve, one random, totally unrelated post caught my eye. It was from an account that Tweets posts to a Processing help forum. Someone was innocently asking a programming query, and unexpectedly created a small, strange, fitting moment.

Which, the more I think about it, is actually much more than a simple accidental pun about where Apple Computers is.

I hope we all get to gracefully exit the infinite loops.